In 1787, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote to her sister Everina:
Don't smile when I tell you that I am tormented with spasms. . . . I know they all arise from disordered nerves, that are injured beyond a possibility of receiving any aid from medicine— There is no cure for a broken heart!1
Although she stresses her genuine suffering from a combination of mental and physical factors, Wollstonecraft makes it clear that spasms are slightly comic symptoms, presumably in their bathetic relation to tragic heartbreak. Her deliberate emphasis on the emotional and affective cause of her illness suggests she is exploiting the perceived link between female emotion and bodily suffering: in retrospect, the reader might also smile at the idea that Wollstonecraft, later notable for brilliantly scornful dissections of the cultural relation between women and sickness, might have fallen prey to such a peculiarly feminine illness herself. Wollstonecraft was writing over sixty years before "spasm" and "spasmodic" became terms used to denote a particular literary movement, yet this letter is significant because it highlights accepted ideas about the relation between nervousness, heartbreak, and spasmodic attacks and because it additionally considers the association between spasms and gender. These ideas, as we shall see, went on to become a subject of considerable debate in the first half of the nineteenth century, and eventually came to haunt spasmodic poetry and its practitioners.
The pathological connotations of "spasm" and "spasmodic" have received little attention in modern criticism, yet from the 1780s to the 1850s and beyond, it was precisely these connotations which would have been most familiar to readers. By exploring the unnoticed medical context of spasm, this article will suggest ways in which critical discourse about spasmodic poetry exploited medical implications of weakness, effeminacy, [End Page 473] nervousness, and lack of will in order to trope Spasmodic poetry as pathological. The poets themselves, however, often fostered this identification by deploying language, form, and imagery which evoked the body and strongly hinted at disease. I will argue that Alexander Smith, Sydney Dobell, and J. Stanyan Bigg attempted to use the pathological "Spasmodism" of their poetry to promote a radical poetics, while simultaneously displaying considerable anxiety about the interaction between spasms, illness, and femininity. Their poems defiantly present spasms as a key feature of the natural world, as instances of physical or spiritual connection to wider forces, and as a constituent part of poetic form and rhythm. They also introduce a new kind of poetic hero, who is indeed nervous, emotional, and prone to spasmodic attacks, and thus definitely lacks key attributes of mid-Victorian manliness, but who views this less as a drawback than as an essential element of the modern poet in tune with his times. Given that the revolutionary fervor of the late 1840s, the period when Spasmodic poetry began to emerge as a genre, was itself discussed in the language of disease, this Spasmodic poet-hero could accurately claim to represent—indeed to embody—his culture.
Yet no poetic hero, whether Smith's Walter in A Life-Drama, Dobell's eponymous Balder or Bigg's Alexis in Night and the Soul (not to mention the speaker of Tennyson's Maud or Arnold's Empedocles) actually achieves success and confident self-definition in the course of a Spasmodic poem: all are undermined or betrayed by their unstable minds and/or bodies. While these poems begin with grandiose statements, they inevitably trail off into anxious and uncertain futures, often marked by disease or death. If giving in to, or welcoming, spasmodic illness seemed to offer a way into a new poetics, it also demonstrated the instability of this poetics and the dangers of practicing it—literal as well as metaphorical dangers, given that Spasmodic poetry was generally expected to create disease in the bodies of the poets themselves.
The vexed relation between spasmodic disease and the feminine is one evident cause of the uneasiness evident in these poems and in contemporary accounts of spasmodic poetry. This relation becomes clear if we consider Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, a rare example of a successful woman artist in literature, but also a rare portrayal of...